Yesterday I saw a poster outside a church not far from here
It read: “Do you have a family? We are a family here”
My first reaction (and that of my passengers) was distinctly negative...and that made me reflect on the way we use the language of family to describe relationships within our churches.
When your own experience of family life has been a good one, it's a fine analogy, but for the many who equate family with failed relationships or disappointed hopes there are definite problems. That's part of the reason why we talk about
“All Age Worship” rather than a “Family Service”...And yet, on a good day church life is very much like that of a family: a group of people of all ages, sharing lifes ups and downs together not because we've chosen one another, but because we know we have the same Father.
I know there are problems with this too, that survivors of abuse can find our language about God a barrier to belief...but we can only use the words that we have, conscious of their limitations, and knowing that when we speak of God we use language to point to One far beyond words.
So today we're encouraged to think about families. The Grapevine will have alerted you that this is a feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a day to celebrate the one whom the Orthodox describe as the Mother of God, and our readings are full of family references from the “bride and groom” of Isaiah, to Paul's clear exposition of the divinity of Christ “God sent his Son, born of a woman...” - and of our own identity as adopted children. Perhaps one additional danger of overusing family language in our churches is that we lose sight of quite how staggering this adoption is. We, ordinary, grubby humanity, with all our selfishness, our instinct for mutual and self destruction, are nonetheless adopted by the source of all Love, all Goodness...Adopted by God!
What's more, we stand to inherit all God offers– for we are heirs with Christ of all that the Father has and is.
Heirs, invited to share divinity because Christ first shared our humanity.
As we proclaim each week in the Creed
“For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man”
Incarnate of the Holy Spirit AND the Virgin Mary...
At that crucial moment in salvation history God invited human co-operation...and turned not to the centres of power, to Jerusalem or to Rome, but to a small town in Galilee and a young peasant girl...
Through the centuries a culture of devotion has grown up around Mary. Some of it may seem extravagant, even inappropriate for one who was, after all, not so very remarkable.
Not a great church leader, not a theologian or teacher, but a teenage mother. Nothing special.
But think for a moment of what she represents – and what was achieved through her obedience.
Mary, you see, recognised God and opened herself completely to God's will, holding nothing in reserve...welcoming God not just in name but in the reality of God's being, carried in her own body, flesh of her flesh.
Mary opened herself completely to God's will, and so through her, as the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, Salvation came into the world.
I think, then, there IS something remarkable here...As so often, God takes the ordinary – a girl like Mary – and uses her in an extraordinary way. Her obedience changes everything...In Mary the teenager, as so often at other times in God's dealings with human kind, God takes something very ordinary and does something extraordinary...but here we have not just a miracle of transformation. Having heard the angel, Mary believes, and obeys – though knowing that she faces at best an uncertain future.
Her obedience is, in itself, the first fruits of the revolution to come, for she embraces change, without knowing what may come to pass.
We don't hear the story of her encounter with the angel today, but we do hear what happened next...
It's easy to imagine Mary heading for the hill country, in search of her cousin. Perhaps she wanted to escape the village gossips in Nazareth.
Perhaps she longed to share her news (was it good or bad? How could she know) with someone she could trust.
Perhaps she hoped for reassurance – for the angel had promised her that Elizabeth's pregnancy was a sign that with God nothing is impossible.
Whatever the reason for her journey, on arrival she was greeted with words of affirmation and that welcome must have been music to her ears
“"Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!”
Here was evidence that the angel had spoken truth, that her faithful obedience was rooted in God's reality – and so Mary opened her mouth and gave voice to the cry of joyous revolution that the Church has tried to tame by familiarity, that great shout of praise that is the Magnificat.
Listen to those familiar words and imagine what they could mean in our world
Share in the excitement of Mary's vision of the future God plans, a future where the unthinkable happens, where the lowliness of God's servants does not prevent them from co-operating with him in doing great things.
“God scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God brings down the powerful from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty...”
How you hear these words depends, perhaps, on where you are in life.
Among the powerful, they surely strike a chill – for this is the world turned upside down...but among those on the margins, those who believe themselves to be small and unimportant, they are the clarion call of Good News.
And that Good News has been released in the world through Mary's openness to God.
So as we celebrate her part in the history of our Salvation, we have a choice. We can cling our own agendas, refusing to let God work his transforming will in our lives or we can honour Mary by imitation, as we strive to be open and obedient to God– to welcome God into each and every aspect of our lives, so that we too may be God-bearers for our place and time...